Nathan Oliveira was a painter and artist of spirit and whimsy with breath-taking courage and skillful temporal presence. I call his presence temporal not because he is no longer with us among the living or because his work has been in or out of fashion. No, I utilize the term “temporal” to refer to Oliveira’s oeuvre because of how the artist is conscious of the multiplicity of lineages running through art’s history and how they are present in his paintings and sculptures. An excellent quote at the entrance of his current show at the John Berggruen Gallery in San Francisco speaks to this phenomenon:
I do not look at modern art as a linear experience, continually in competition with itself, devouring itself – a game for popular society to play. I rather believe in in an art that layers time upon time, an art that simply reaffirms our presence adn the depth of our existence on this earth, our planet in the universe. In this respect I see my art as simply a current link in a chain to those who have preceded me. In a way I want to touch the artists who early on started the civilized journey of mankind. I simply want to be a part of a continuous renaissance.
Mr. Oliveira (b. 1928, d. 2010) was a native of Oakland, California and the son of Portuguese immigrants. His Portuguese roots often show through in his earthy palette and in his delicate Mediterranean sensibility as a picture-maker. His oil paintings, all figurative in some form, represent a stripping down of figure painting to its paleolithic and prehistoric roots, hence the temporal quality in his vision as an artist. At once very contemporary in his stylistic outreach and exploration, Oliveira’s works still maintain a kind of transcendental humanity to them.
In the age of #MeToo and identity politics such a statement may sound odd, out of fashion and passe but in fact it is the ultimate test of every artist to speak to multiple generations and multiple notions of the self or humanity. Nathan Oliveira’s work accomplishes this most difficult task.
The current exhibition of Mr. Oliveiras work at John Berggruen represents a lovely look into the artist’s career and spans more than three decades. The show also includes sculptures from his oeuvre that can be best described as ineffable, perhaps even un-representable in their simplicity and in the way they tantalize figurative representation without completely ceding to its rules and traditions.
In the painting “Profile” Oliveiras pushes the boundary between a finished work and one in a state of eternal purgatorial unfinishedness and suspension. This is a painting, with its rusty hues and watery execution that should not work, but it does. It more than works. It resonates in a way that would please Richard Serra and Aboriginal tribesman both. In fact, it almost looks perfect as a companion to any of Serra’s Massive Steel sculptures, a two-dimensional response the CorTen steel and its perpetual state of oxidation whose colors match Profile perfectly.
This work of contemporary cave painting is in its own humble way a testament to the 40,000 year lineage of the human form that appeared on walls in Africa and Europe and now makes its presence felt on this memorable canvas.
The Nathan Oliveira exhibition represents a unique opportunity for lovers of art history to view a contemporary artist who was not afraid to be inspired by art of the past and the art of prehistory – a brave position indeed in light of today’s narcissistic and ahistorical artworld.